Ashley raised his head from his knees and leaned against the wall. “Nicky… do you still not trust me even when Madeline has returned?”
Only silence responded.
“I know you’re awake, your eyes are boring through my mind.”
The silence continued to permeate the room.
“You can stop being suspicious. I will not hurt them, especially not with Madeline here.”
The silence settled between them.
“Nicky, it is still unnerving to be watched as you sleep.”
“Will you really never sleep as long as I am here?” He smirked. “Or will you continue to have your friends watch me while you sleep?”
The silence whispered in the air between them.
Ashley leaned on his knees again. “Good talk, Nicky…”
The darkness seeped back into the room and covered the silence. Nick’s hard stare remained resolute as he continued to scan and scrutinize the movement in the room. His back was rigid against the wall as he breathed as silently as possible.
Minako tightened her grip on his ankle as she curled into her knees.
He ran his hand through her hair. You’ll be safe, Minako.
Brian turned to Nick as he opened his eyes slowly. “Nick… Are you ready to switch?” he whispered.
Brian tiptoed over to him and settled against the wall. He crossed his legs and leaned against his staff. “Do you think we should ask the others to join our rotation?”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t want to bother them… Plus we’re heading to your home soon, right?” He returned his gaze to Ashley, his brow furrowing. “What are security measures like there?”
Brian shook his head. “While we are very protective of our home in general, I don’t want Madeline or Jacob to feel like prisoners. They’ve been nothing but nice.”
“I know. It’s not them.” Nick tightened his crossed arms as he faced Brian, but continued to glance at Ashley from the corner of his eye. “But if there was someone else who could watch him…”
“I’ll see what I can do so we can spread out and have some space to ourselves. I’m sure you and Minako are tired of being cooped up with me.” Brian laughed quietly.
“No, it’s fine.”
“Get some rest.” Brian clapped his hand on Nick’s shoulder.
Nick snorted as he uncrossed his legs. “Yeah, if I don’t have that dream again.”
Minako stirred slightly and kicked her legs out of the ball.
Nick pulled the linens away from her, pressing a light kiss to her forehead as he ran his fingers through her hair.
She opened her eyes slowly. “Nick…”
“I’m here, go back to sleep.” He kissed her gently, then pulled her toward his chest and let his wings wrap around both of their bodies lightly before laying back down and nuzzling against her shoulder. “I’m here…”
“Me too…” Minako mumbled as she draped her arm around his neck.
Nick’s eyes opened and closed slowly as he relaxed and began to sleep.
Nick ran through the darkness. This dream again… He parted the hanging leaves in front of him and pushed into the grove. The small house stood in front of him menacingly. “The sad house…”
He trudged toward it, his shoulders slumping. Will you still be in there, small, blond boy? Will you still look at me with those hateful eyes? What do I say so that you won’t hurt me? He stopped in front of the door and clenched his hand into a fist, then shook his head, turned away from the house, and started to walk back up the path.
The house shimmered into view in front of him, blocking his path. He turned quickly, trying to walk the other way, but the house still stood in front of him.
“Of course I don’t have any choices except going in.” His exasperated laugh filled the air as he slowly pushed open the creaking door.
“M-mom?” As the door creaked open, the same small boy stared up at it, his bloody hand trembling as he held it beside his face.
Nick stood in the door for a moment, but then leaned down in front of the child. “Hi.” He waved hesitantly.
The child stared up at him, his palms glowing and crackling.
Nick leaned back. “I don’t want to hurt you, I just wanted to see your house.”
The child shut his hands and then opened his bloody hand again as he reached up to Nick’s face, brushing it against his cheek and leaving a smear of blood across it. Nick reached for the boy’s hand and held it gently as the boy continued to touch his face.
Behind the boy, the spirits of light blazed and burned.
Nick glanced at the spirits behind the boy. “Your house wanted me here, no matter how much I tried to avoid it. Are you angry that I came in? Or are you angry that I tried to leave?”
The spirits burned brighter and shot the same blazing light toward him. Nick crumpled and clenched the boy’s hand tightly before shrieking in pain.
He startled awake, clutching Minako tightly and gasping for air as he leaned his head on hers; his glance darted around the room, scrutinizing the bare furnishings and inhabitants. Darkness still settled over them; Ashley still slept slumped against the wall, Madeline still tossed and turned, and Brian still sat next to the door with his staff resting across his lap.
“Nick… Did you have that dream again?” Minako ran her thumb against his cheek.
He pulled her closer to his chest and inhaled deeply. “Minako… That dream...” He glanced at Brian again. “Ready to switch?”
Brian shook his head. “You can keep sleeping if you need to, I haven’t been here that long. Was that the dream again?”
Nick held his face in his hand. “Kind of… It always ends the same way with the burning light. I tried not to go into the house this time, but it kept following me.”
Minako ruffled the hair at his forehead. “We’re here, Nick.”
He ran his hand down his face and then ran it through Minako’s hair again. “I know. Thanks.”
Minako put her hand to Nick’s chest; his heart beat wildly beneath her touch.
“I don’t think I could sleep if I wanted to.” He gave Minako another squeeze, then crawled out from under the linens. He sat back against the wall, crossing his arms and legs again before turning to Brian and nodding toward the empty bed. “Your turn to rest.”
“You’re unbelievable, Nick.”
“I’ll get sleep when I need it.”
Brian pursed his lips, but said nothing. He wrapped his wings around his shoulders as he tiptoed back over to the mat in the center, lay down, and pulled the linens over his body. He grasped his staff as he laid it across his chest and stared at the ceiling.
“Brian, you know you can say something if you want to say something.” Nick gazed across the room; the harsh expression returned to his face as he stared at Ashley.
“It’s fine, we’ll be back in Safaiananpou soon.”
“I can’t wait.”
Minako moved closer to the edge of the mat and gripped Nick’s ankle again. “Nick…”
He ran his fingers through her hair, his voice reflecting his small, gentle smile as he watched her. “I’m fine, I promise.”
The darkness settled over the room as his fingers lingered in her hair. I’m fine, I promise… No matter what, I’ll make sure that you’re fine too.
The clearing sparkled in the sunlight, bathing Minako and the sapphire demons in the bright light. Howie sat with his back against a tree, pressing his thumb against a few notes on a piece of paper. AJ stretched and stared up at the open sky. Kevin and Brian leaned against the same large tree with their arms crossed. Minako sat next to Brian, staring up at Nick, who stood and stared at the large tree. The wind settled between them like an unsaid whisper.
AJ put his hands into his lap. “This is where you two got married?”
“Yup.” He turned to Minako and smiled at her broadly.
“Even though you were hurting, it felt like the right choice. I think it connected us this whole time.” Minako fiddled with her ring as she stared up at Nick.
Nick stared back to the top of the tree. “It kept me going. It keeps me going, knowing that I have you.” He shook his head. “But I hate that we keep coming back here. When are we leaving?”
“We believe that tomorrow can be our final departure. Madeline has assured us that her affairs are in order.”
Brian laughed. “I’m sure she said it just like that.”
Howie peered at him over his paper.
“Are you sure it wasn’t something more like, ‘Let’s just leave if you want to leave, Your Majesty!’?” Brian continued laughing.
Nick crossed his arms and trudged across the clearing toward the trees where the others sat. “Whatever she said, I’m glad.” He slumped down next to Minako. “I can’t wait to leave Rubiihoppou.” He leaned back and laid on the grass as he put his hand to his head. “Maybe we can all finally relax or focus on something else…”
Kevin frowned as he turned to him. “Nick… You know we will help you with Ashley, whatever you need. Just ask.”
AJ crossed his arms. “I hate him. I say we leave him behind, no matter what Madeline says.”
“More is stronger…” Nick mumbled.
“There is more than one way to be strong.” Kevin stood slowly then settled down beside Nick. “Is it worth it to be strong, but miserable?”
Nick sat up quickly with his arms and legs stretched out. “Speaking of being strong… I’ve been meaning to ask all of you… How do you call your powers? I want to get lots of ideas…”
Minako scooted closer to Nick and gripped his arm. “I’d love to hear too.” She smiled. “You’re all amazing, and I’ve always been curious about your powers.”
AJ jumped up. “Okay!” He gripped his earring. “I just think of what I want to be and--” He pulled the earring and a pale smoke surrounded him. When it dissipated, he was a perfect replica of Nick, from his blond hair down to his bare feet, except for the large gold hoop earrings. He strode over to Minako and picked up her hand, kissing it lightly. “My love.”
Minako smiled and tapped his golden hoop earring. “AJ… Nick doesn’t talk like that.”
AJ pulled back and laughed. “You’re right, I’ll never be strong enough to fool you.” He gripped her hand again and smiled, mustering all of his gentleness into the expression. “Minako…”
“Nick…” Brian batted his eyelashes as he put his hand to his chest, stifling a laugh with his other hand.
Nick crossed his arms and frowned. “We don’t talk to each other like that…” He turned to Minako, catching her bemused smile, then glanced at the ground as he mumbled, “All the time…”
Brian and AJ continued to laugh as AJ pulled his earring, surrounding his body in a cloud of smoke before returning to his regular form.
“I guess I know that you think of what you want to turn into before you shapeshift, but I meant more… what happens inside your body before you shapeshift?”
AJ crossed his arms. “The old man described the body like a vase… You pick it up and pour out the shapeshifting power and it fills whatever container you decide to pour it into.”
Nick frowned and clenched his fist. “Pouring or stretching and pulling…” He turned to Kevin. “What does healing power feel like before it comes out?”
“It feels like… stones is a good approximation, I guess. It’s as if they’re stacking on each other and building.” He shook his head as he smiled. “But when I go to pull them out, it’s more like a binding paste that fills up the injuries. It’s difficult to explain.”
“Broth.” Howie smiled broadly.
Nick cocked his head and furrowed his brow. “This is confusing…”
Kevin uncrossed his arms and turned to Nick. “Well, what do yours feel like?”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t know… Burning… But also ripples… It’s like they just want to spill out.” He clenched his fists, then leaned back against the grass again. "But I don't know if they're just bubbling to the surface from disuse… Maybe they’re quieter normally. Or maybe it’s hard to feel them.”
Kevin stood, brushed off his pants, and reached his hand down to Nick. “Let’s see how quiet they really are.”
Nick took his hand and let Kevin pull him up. “Are you going to attack me? Brian’s been practicing with me.”
Kevin smiled warmly as he pulled Nick away from the others and toward the center of the clearing. “No… But it might hurt if you’re not calm…” He gripped Nick’s hand tightly, a warm glow surrounded their palms.
Nick winced as the glow began crackling and shocked him. “It stings.” He tried to jerk his hand back, but Kevin gripped his hand tighter. Sparks began flickering between their hands. Nick stared at Kevin with wide eyes. “What are you…”
Kevin smiled and placed his glowing hand at Nick’s chest. The sparks between their hands flared and danced as they continued to crackle and sting. Nick tried to jerk his hand back again, but each time he jerked it back, Kevin gripped it tighter.
As he gripped, he applied pressure to various places on Nick’s hand. “When you panic and struggle, it will make those sparks. How are you feeling?”
Nick’s wings shot from his back as his face grew pale. “I feel…” He winced. It stings and burns. It’s like being back in that sad house with the spirits of light. I can’t… It feels like Kevin is trying to rip something out of me. Is there even anything to rip out? Or is all of this my power?
This is making me sick… I can’t... Nick tried to pull his hand back again, the sparks shot wildly between their hands and the trees surrounding them.
“Everyone duck!” AJ shouted.
Brian spun his staff and enclosed AJ, Howie, and Minako inside of a barrier with him.
Minako stood quickly and pounded on the barrier. “Kevin, you’re hurting him!”
Nick clutched his stomach with his free hand and began hunching his shoulders as he grimaced. It hurts… I can’t… I can’t stand... He continued to try pulling his hand back. “Kevin… What is this?” The sparks continued to shoot wildly.
“Our powers are like an energy inside of us, constantly moving and buzzing.” He smiled. “Yours seem to be upset that I’m trying to touch them.”
Nick winced and curled into his stomach more as his hand twitched. He tried to pull it back again, but each time he pulled back, the sparks burst and flashed. “Then stop…” I can’t… It hurts...
Minako continued to pound on the barrier. “Brian, let me out!”
Brian frowned and reached his hand toward her shoulder. “Minako, but it’s…”
“Let me out! Nick!”
“Focus on your powers instead of Brian’s barrier and pull them back in. Stay calm.”
“I can’t…” He glanced between Kevin and the barrier. It hurts...
“Face them with that strong heart. Be unafraid of consequences.”
Nick choked and struggled as the sparks blazed and ignited as they shot between the trees. I can’t… It hurts...
Minako continued to pound on the barrier.
“Minako--” Brian started.
“Let me out!”
Howie crossed his arms. “Kevin has chosen an interesting method for testing his powers. We wonder if any of ours would react in the same manner.”
AJ glanced between Brian and Minako. “Brian…”
“Minako…” Brian lowered his head and pulled a sutra from his tunic and whispered inaudibly. The sutra glowed brightly in his hand. “If you’re about to get hurt, I will not hesitate to rescue you.” He loosened his grip on his staff and a small puncture appeared in the barrier.
Minako pulled and clawed at it until it spread enough for her to run through. She sprinted toward Nick.
“Minako?” Kevin furrowed his brow.
“Minako…” Nick’s voice was barely audible over his crumpled form.
“Nick!” Minako shrieked as she ran toward him.
“Minako, no… Sparks… hurt...” He continued to shrink into himself.
She wrapped her arms around his chest and leaned on his back as she buried her head against his wings. “I’m here! You’re safe!”
Nick moved his shaking hand from his stomach to grip her clenched hands. Safe… He inhaled deeply; the stinging stopped and Nick’s body began relaxing. For a brief moment, his skin seemed to glow radiantly as the sparks froze and shimmered around his form.
Kevin smiled. “See? When you’re calm, they stop.” He placed his hand to Nick’s forehead and his palm glowed with a bright sapphire light.
Nick gulped air and slowly stood to meet Kevin’s eyes with his gaze. The color gradually returned to his face. “I thought I was going to throw up… Why?”
“You said you thought they were bubbling to the surface from disuse. So, I thought I could help wake them up and calm them down.”
Nick hunched quickly. “No, I’m definitely going to be sick still…” He gagged.
Minako smoothed his hair against his head.
Kevin ran his hand along Nick’s stomach then back to his forehead. The sparks disappeared and seemed to be reabsorbed into Nick’s skin as he continued gagging.
Nick collapsed to his hands and knees as his body shook, then lowered his head between his shoulders and threw up.
Minako kneeled down next to him and continued pushing back his hair as she held her hand at the base of his neck.
“I’m dying...” Nick leaned on his elbows for a moment, then laid down on his side and shut his eyes as he breathed heavily. “Just leave me here for a minute…”
Kevin kneeled down as well, placing one glowing hand to Nick’s chest and the other to his forehead. “It’s strenuous to let them out without a purpose, but you’ll be okay.”
“Then why did you pull them out?”
“I was just touching your pressure points in your hand. Your powers did that on their own, but the more you panicked, the more they tried to protect you.” Kevin pat his forehead. “And since you aren’t used to using them, your body reacted negatively.”
Nick ran his hand down his face. “Okay… So somehow when we’re in the mountains, I need to figure out how my powers work and figure out how to use them while we prepare to go against the emerald demons again… and then there’s Ashley… It’s too much…”
Kevin smiled as the glow in his hands vanished. “You’re not alone. Whether it’s your powers, the emerald demons, or Ashley, we’re all here for you.”
Howie, Brian, and AJ sat beside them.
“Kevin is correct.” Howie smiled. “Together, we are all stronger. We will just need to strategize how to best utilize all of our strengths.”
“What strengths?” Nick sat up and shrugged.
Kevin patted his shoulder. “You have strengths, Nick. As long as you’re trying, that’s what matters.”
Nick lowered his head for a moment, but quickly raised it with a broad smile on his face. “Whatever you all ask… I’ll try. I’ll try as hard as I can for you.”